When I emerged from the narrow dark damp crowded green-shuttered shop-lined sun-speckled stone-floored alley onto the huge teeming plaza I could barely see for the brilliance of the sun that reflected off floor and white and yellow marble walls and golden hills beyond. As I slowly picked my battered and battering way through the crowd I peered toward the gate over heads turned diagonally to the left which is where I had been told that the common people were allowed to enter on the days we were allowed to enter at all. The lowing and bleating and braying coming from the open courtyard of the building far above me and from the cacophony of men rhythmically shouting with which it was blended were deafening. And I couldn’t breath for all the thick clouds of white smoke that blew from time to time down from the narrow opening in the roof far above that mixed with hot late season desert winds sweeping the tops of hills until catching the opposite wall of the plaza and ricocheting back and forth and coming to rest in the human interstices. I tried to close my nose against the acrid smoke that blended with the tinny sickly taste of fresh blood flowing in a constant stream that sometimes gushed down a channel that ran from the top of the façade at least forty cubits above to a trench at the base that ran alongside the building until it disappeared down a hole the width of a large man in the far left corner. I was embarrassed as my flapping keffiyah whipped faces in the crowd whose headgear was tighter and more fashionable than my own. Equally by the flowing robes given me by a kindly Philistine now steady with sweat around my legs as I observed the tailored dress of the people around me. Their mass entrancement kept them facing left rather than noticing my ignorance.
I was stuck like a stone between boulders in a stream at the convergence point of those pushing to the left and those wandering from the right. I could only move forward. I wasn’t going back.
I was hungry.
The deathbellow of an ox resounded around my ear. A column of white smoke. Pushed ajar from the right. No strength to resist. Slowly flowed with the crowd toward the left.
The crowd compressed as we approached the huge retaining wall that supported the structure.
There was a gate.
A small plaza.
A huge dark open door.
He was perhaps the largest man I had ever seen, bearded, in a dark suit with a dark shirt and a dark tie and a transparent plastic speaker in his right ear. As each supplicant approached, he or she would look up to the man who would check his clipboard, look the person over, and then nod in or out.
There was no way to predict.
It was especially tough for the women who, rumor had it, were required to prove that they weren’t menstruating before they’d be allowed in, even if they were on the list.
A few Edomite girls with ridiculously short robes who really weren’t supposed to be there in the first place were standing just in front of me. They even managed to get sort of a smile out of the guy.
Eh, we’re all family.
Anyway, if you managed to make it through, you had an open lane straight to the gate. I didn’t know what lay beyond.
It was my first time.
It was my turn.
I did not get a smile.
He looked at the clipboard.
Without even looking up at me, he started to nod back in the direction of the plaza.
You didn’t get a second chance.
I took a deep breath.
I forced back the choke with what little strength I had remaining.
And let my air explode above the din.
“My father was a wandering Aramean!”
. . . .
He looked up.
Dropped his clipboard to his side.
Bent toward me, lowered his glasses, and looked closely at my face.
I steadied myself to avoid flinching from the rotting smell of his breath.
Resisting the forward push of the crowd.
. . . .
. . . .
Nasal voice for such a big guy.
The light was dim.
My first thought was to look for the Edomite girls. But who had a chance? I promptly found myself between two lines of guys dressed in white robes and white hats blowing rams’ horns and forming a corridor straight through the hall.
It occurred to me that the Edomite girls were lucky that we didn’t do virgin sacrifice.
I doubted they would qualify anyway.
The crowds weren’t quite as congealed in here and the smell was less pungent than on the plaza so I stole a few deep breaths as I was swept down the human hallway to a wash of light in the distance. Traffic had backed up some by the time I reached the stairs that led to the courtyard I had glimpsed from below. Constricted again, I let myself be pulled up, tottering a bit on the top step because it was hard to get balance, and almost stumbling into the courtyard. I had to look down into the sea of legs because of the painful gleam of the marble and as I did I saw feathers and hair and an occasional pancake of manure flattened dry and sometimes not and patterned by the tread of hundreds of sandals.
The crowd didn’t seem to be moving in any particular direction so much as rotating around the space, pushed by the masses rolling up the stairs and released by those cascading downwards.
The rotation finally brought me around the courtyard to a large columned portico beneath which were somewhat more measured columns of people, men on the left and women on the right, standing and bowing and weaving and chanting. In front of them was a dense curtain that must have spanned at least twenty by forty cubits from the ceiling to the floor and was woven with threads of blue and red and purple and gold. In the center was a triangular opening, large enough for one person to pass through, closed now by a brilliant gold flap.
A huge gold menorah on the left.
A strange sort of cabinet on the right.
And a table.
I stepped out of the crowd into the shade.
The noise faded from my ears.
The chanting was a droning buzz, a soft hum.
The blast of a lone shofar penetrated and rose as it faded toward the ceiling.
Slowly down the middle of the aisle.
The glow of the gold flap lured me closer.
A woman rose from behind and shouted “stop.”
I was ten cubits from the curtain.
Two men leaped up.
They started for the aisle.
Several others joined them, pushing along the rows to reach me.
They crowded me.
Formed a scrum around me.
Tried to hold me back.
I pulled them along.
The din in my ears.
Dragging behind me.
“Death!” one shouted, the last to fall off me, a final heroic effort to restrain me.
Silence reverberating with anxiety.
I peeled back the flap.
The room was not huge.
Twenty cubits by twenty cubits.
A large rectangular gold case.
Two cherubs rising from the top.
Not Christified sissy cherubs, little babies with chubby cheeks and gently folded wings staring up at the ceiling like they were watching Michaelangelo or something.
Old-time Israelite cherubs, terrifying tall, looming lion bodies, eagle wings aloft, scowling human-faced.
A bronze altar stood in the center.
Framed by swooping horns to hold the sacrifice.
A column of thick white smoke blasting through sunlight to the ceiling hole above.
A smallish man, no bigger than a boy, standing in front of the altar, his back to me.
Dressed in brilliant white.
Looking down intently as he used a large stick to manipulate something before him.
Perhaps he had heard me.
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
On Yom Kippur.